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William Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The world is Too Much With Us” was first published in, Poems, in Two Volumes in 1807, a collection characterised by its Romantic exaltation of nature. While the sonnet has often been read primarily as a critique of nineteenth-century society’s discord with the natural world, this essay will argue that, the poem is in fact, an ode to the imagination that nature inspires. Man and nature’s crumbling creative union, historically varying interpretations, as well as the value placed on divine experience by Wordsworth will be examined.
Initially, Wordsworth pinpoints the union between man and nature, which traditionally facilitates imaginative capacity as imperilled. Conventionally, the Petrarchan sonnet showcases a speaker extolling the virtues of his beloved. However, in the sonnet Wordsworth subverts such conventions, lamenting the ignorance of mankind to the Romantic sentiments that his ‘beloved’ nature is capable of engendering. This is evident in the octave as Wordsworth utilises fractured lineation to highlight mankind’s self-indulgent preoccupations: “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”. Here, through the use of caesura, Wordsworth structurally introduces the poem’s parallel themes of mankind’s materialism and subsequent loss of imaginative power. Through the use the present participle combined with the plurality of the speaker’s rhetoric, Wordsworth suggests the ceaseless nature of consumerism is undermining our figurative creative powers. Succeeding this, in a direct demonstration of such imaginative ability, Wordsworth draws upon his own poetic powers in a triplet of natural vignettes: “This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; /The winds that will be howling at all hours, /And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers”. The alliterative and assonant, elemental motif demonstrates the scope of nature’s imaginative potential. In personifying nature in three, contrasting states: sexual, powerful and peaceful, man’s capacity to find inspiration in nature’s extremes is evident, emphasising the creative loss if nature’s beauty is disregarded in favour of materialism. This is reinforced at the exclamatory volta, “it moves us not- Great God” which marks a turn in both rhyme and voice. Through the combined change in rhyme scheme and shift from a plural to personal voice, “so might I” Wordsworth typifies the speaker as his ideal. Having achieved imaginative liberty by the sestet, unfettered by societal decadence, the speaker is no longer part of the majority who are, “out of tune”.
Comparatively, not only does Wordsworth criticise worldly materialism through the Italian sonnet structure, but it can be argued he also condemns modern Christianity, contributing it to the decline in natural inspiration. This criticism is evident early in the poem, through the varying interpretations of the emphatic metaphor: “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”. At first glance, as Tianyu Ma understands, the oxymoronic “sordid boon” may merely be interpreted as an immoral gift with “boon” defined as, “A gift […]; a benefit enjoyed, blessing, advantage” (OED). In this respect, mankind is shown to waste their own imaginative capacity, freely giving away their innate appreciation of nature: “From the seventeenth century onward […] “boon” could refer to any gift that is given, even if it was not actively sought by the recipient”. However, on closer inspection, it’s apparent “boon” is entrenched in a history of religious meaning, defined from 1175 onwards as, “A prayer, to God, Christ, etc”. There is an argument to be made that, by qualifying a word of religious significance with the impious adjective, “sordid”, Wordsworth denounces modern Christianity pinpointing it as culpable for the shift away from the tradition of finding spiritual inspiration within nature. Instead, it can be suggested man now turns inwards to prayer; detrimental to imagination. Indeed, this is reinforced later in the poem, with the speaker claiming he’d, “rather be/ A pagan suckled in a creed outworn”. Through the infantile metaphor and radical tone, Wordsworth deems even Paganism a more tenable alternative than existing in the contemporary world; void of imaginative capacity.
Moreover, Wordsworth continues his campaign against modern religion, instead promoting the creativity that arises from bygone, elemental gods who embody nature itself. This is evident through the sublime imagery and the classical allusion to ancient Greek gods: “Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; /Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; /Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.” Through this, “the speaker not only imagines the sight of Proteus and the sound of Triton’s horn, but he imagines himself engaging in that act of imagination”. Harking back to ancient deities, Wordsworth employs unassertive rhetoric: “have glimpses… have sight” with the anaphoric, visual language indicative of Wordsworth’s ideal; quiet observation of nature to reveal divine inspiration; starkly juxtaposed with the incessant, “getting and spending” of the industrial world. Thus, Romantic conventions are exemplified as Wordsworth summons the symbolic, personified gods of the sea, imbuing them with sublime glory through grandiose rhetoric and a poignant tone. As such, he romanticises ancient faith, presenting it as an integral facet of the imagination. Indeed, such ability of the gods to arise within nature as a source of divine inspiration is echoed in the sonnet itself as the speaker literally imagines Proetus emerging from the depth of the sea.
Ultimately, in “The World is Too Much With Us” Wordsworth presents the divorce between society and nature as one of great detriment to the imagination, portraying society’s shift from spiritual encounters with nature to debauchery as a factor in this decline. By the close of the sonnet, Wordsworth’s pantheism is implicit, he embraces a multi-faceted faith, finding spirituality in the natural world and its imaginative capacity. To Wordsworth, “Nature [was] no longer a mere vegetation; to be described but a manifestation of God.” Through this, Wordsworth presents a solution. To reclaim “our hearts” and “our powers” we must tentatively open our minds to nature. Only once we have ceased our materialistic crusade and re-discovered our imagination, will the world no longer be, “too much with us”.
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